Bottomline | Ambiguous Ambitions

By redefining India’s minimum deterrence, the government is going down a dangerous spiral

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

When the Vajpayee government conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, it made two unambiguous statements on nuclear weapons: China was the reason for India’s tests. And India would maintain a ‘credible minimum deterrence’. The government’s key interlocutor with the United States, Jaswant Singh, clarified that ‘minimum’ could not be defined in terms of capability and numbers, and would remain a flexible concept.

The implicit sense being that India needed nuclear deterrence only against its two adversaries, China and Pakistan, which whom it has disputed borders. So, if China enhanced its nuclear arsenal, India would be compelled to review its ‘minimum’. Pakistan was not mentioned as its nuclear weapons holdings and capability would understandably never exceed China’s.

Unfortunately, this nuclear weapons policy has been altered surreptitiously, with dangerous implications, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a series of articles, the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran has placed India’s nuclear weapons programme in a global context. India, he has argued, needs a peaceful global environment shorn of all nuclear weapons for its economic rise and inclusive well-being. Thus, the ‘minimum’ has purportedly been elevated indicating that India desires deterrence against ‘maximum’ nuclear weapons capability nation, which is the US. While it will be preposterous to suggest that India needs deterrence against the US, the question that begs an answer is why did Saran make India’s ‘minimum’ open-ended, knowing well that it could lead to an unnecessary, wasteful, devastating and extremely expensive arms race?

The answer probably is simple. Given the opacity surrounding every aspect of India’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems, this gives lee-way to both the Department Of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research And Development Organisation (DRDO) to continue spending finances on what they wish to do and not what is necessary for ‘minimum’ deterrence. For instance, Saran has sought to justify the need for DRDO’s pursuit of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and MIRVs (multiple independently re-entry vehicles) for ballistic missiles as being compatible with India’s no-first use nuclear policy.

Taking advantage of the government’s hands-off approach, the DRDO chief, Avinash Chander has announced that he is ready with the design of an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile), Agni-6 missile.

Therefore, as long as India’s political leaders do not care to understand military power in totality including conventional, nuclear, space and cyber domains, they will be taken for a ride by vested interests of these domain leaders. And, the adversary instead of getting deterred will get provoked. Specific to nuclear weapons, the questions that the next government needs to delve into are: What was the need to shift the nuclear weapons goal-post from ‘minimum’ for China to the global ‘minimum’? Should the DRDO focus on BMD, ICBMs and MIRVs? Or should it concentrate on long-range cruise missiles, the future game-changers? What is more important between pursuing BMD and anti-satellite capabilities? Does India need to review its stance on tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) considering that both China and Pakistan possess them? Does India, in the present geo-political context, require revisiting its no-first use nuclear policy to maintain credible deterrence? For these reasons, India urgently needs a strategic defence review (SDR), which to recall, the Vajpayee government had promised to undertake and make public before conducting the May 1998 nuclear tests.

Why is SDR necessary? To know how to deal with China and Pakistan effectively, especially their risen military power which shows regularly on the disputed borders. Considering that the two nations are poles apart in their world view, national power, strategic thinking and military capabilities, the same yard-stick cannot be applied to both.

Take the case of China. An influential People’s Liberation Army’s Major General Luo Yuan told The Hindu newspaper in the aftermath of the Ladakh stand-off that China does not recognise the border dispute with India amongst its top five military threats. He identified them as East China Sea (with Japan); the South China Sea (with ASEAN nations supported by the US), and financial, cyberspace and outer-space threats (mostly against the US). Thus, the China of 1962 war or 1986 (Sumdorong Chu crisis) is not the same as China today which views itself as a global power pitted against the US perceived to be hostile, aggressive and determined to block its rise.

The Indian military leadership, however, has assessed that a war over the border dispute cannot be ruled out, the conclusion which has been accepted by the government. Never mind that this is a lazy assessment which has been extrapolated with a linear thinking from the past. A more apt assessment would be that instead of a military dissuasive posture on the border, India needs to balance China through a mix of simultaneous military, political and diplomatic methods, something that the SDR would surely conclude.

Even if the military’s assessment is correct, why does India require the over 5,000km Agni-6 missiles or MIRVs if the worst case scenario against China is a border war limited to the Tibet theatre? Between BMD and anti-satellite capabilities, shouldn’t the DRDO be focussing on the latter considering China, to US’ chagrin, successfully demonstrated this capability in 2007? And, will China, given its formidable military prowess and global stakes diminish its stature by threatening use of its strategic nuclear weapons against India? Probably, the worst case scenario would be the threat of Chinese TNWs in a border war against a determined Indian military not allowing an early breakthrough across its defences. Unfortunately, on the one hand, India has ruled out possession of TNWs as it runs contrary to its no-first use policy. On the other hand, India’s plans for Agni-6 and MIRVs have only angered China to further support Pakistan with clandestine nuclear capabilities.

India’s nuclear weapons’ capability building against Pakistan is equally disconcerting where two areas merit attention. The first is cruise missiles — the game-changers — where Pakistan has stolen a march over India. Pakistan’s sub-sonic Babur cruise missile (with turbofan engine) with a range of 700km carrying nuclear warhead was test-fired in August 2005. Since then it has been inducted into Pakistan’s Army Strategic Force Command. Similarly, Pakistan tested its 450km range, air-launched cruise missile Raad in August 2007 which is now part of its Air Force Strategic Command. Given the small diameter of cruise missiles as compared with ballistic missiles and its air defence and BMD evading capabilities, Babur and Raad will most likely carry TNWs. India does not have comparable cruise missiles and TNWs. India’s 290km range supersonic BrahMos cruise missile (with turbojet engine) is a joint-venture with Russia and under the MTCR, Moscow will disallow its use with nuclear warheads and extension of the range beyond 300km limit. Moreover, the DRDO claimed sub-sonic indigenous Nirbhay cruise missile, which has been test-fired once, has run into trouble. After the DRDO openly spoke about using nuclear warheads on Nirbhay, the Russians, who had sold six engines for the cruise missile, have refused further sales.

Shyam Saran

On TNWs, the Indian (Shyam Saran) arguments that they would lower conventional war threshold and run contrary to the nuclear declaratory no-first use policy are untenable. To begin with, Indian nuclear mandarins are advised to read the recent book, ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb,’ by insider retired Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan. According to the writer, ‘Pakistan has no plans to move toward battlefield weapons. Should a nuclear warhead be used in a tactical role, it will still have strategic impact. This warrants the highest level of command and control and use authorisation from the National Command Authority.’ This makes eminent sense considering that the Pakistan military continuously strives to maintain an operational level parity with the Indian military for a land-based conventional war. Therefore, Pakistan’s 60km range Nasr battlefield ballistic missile will likely be armed with conventional warheads aimed to stop India’s sudden attack under its Cold Start doctrine.

Moreover, a nation’s declaratory and employment nuclear polices are not etched in stone; they have to be assessed based on ground realities of conventional war escalating to nuclear war. In any case, no serving Pakistani military officer has spoken of having first-use nuclear policy. Pakistan’s former army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, the man who operationalised Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence, had repeatedly mentioned the need for ‘restraint and responsibility’ regarding nuclear weapons. Since 1999, Pakistan has offered India talks on having a ‘nuclear and conventional restraint regime’, which has been rejected by Delhi on grounds that its nukes are meant for deterrence beyond Pakistan.

The other issue which the proposed SDR should look into is the need for joint operational understanding of a conventional conflict to a nuclear war at the highest level. Thus, while the operational war plans and their execution for a conventional and nuclear war will be separate in all respects, the understanding of the two war domains at a level higher than the services’ headquarters will facilitate timely action by the National Command Authority. Both China and Pakistan have the required organisational structures in place for this purpose. Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Divisions responsible for nuclear weapons has officers who have had formal nuclear technology education in the US and have been around for decades. In India’s case, there is opacity and short-tenures because the ownership of nukes is divided in water-tight compartments between the military, scientists and bureaucrats. This arrangement neither instils confidence within nor provides credible deterrence.


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